Year: 2017

Last Night of the Proms 2017 conducted by Sakari Oramo

Lotta Wennäkoski
Flounce [BBC commission: world premiere]
Kodály
Budavári Te Deum [sung in Latin]
Malcolm Sargent
An Impression on a Windy Day
Sibelius
Finlandia, Op.26 [choral version; sung in Finnish]
Wagner
Tristan und Isolde – Prelude and Liebestod [sung in German]
John Adams
Lola Montez Does the Spider Dance [London premiere]
Songs by Gershwin and Weill*
Henry Wood
Fantasia on British Sea-Songs
Arne
Rule, Britannia! [arr. Sargent]*
Elgar
Pomp and Circumstance March No.1 in D, Op.39/1
Parry, orch. Elgar
Jerusalem

The National Anthem, arr. Arthur Bliss
Auld lang syne, arr. Cedric Thorpe Davie

Lucy Crowe (soprano), Christine Rice (mezzo-soprano), Ben Johnson (tenor) & John Relyea (bass) [Kodály]

Nina Stemme (soprano; Isolde)*

BBC Singers
BBC Symphony Chorus

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Sakari Oramo


Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 9 September, 2017
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Soprano Nina Stemme performs Rule, Britannia! with the BBC Singers, BBC Symphony Chorus and the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sakari Oramo at the Last Night of the Proms 2017Photograph: Mark Allan / BBCAfter fifty-eight days and some ninety concerts, we’re back to another Last Night. How did that happen? There was still some unfinished business, tidied up – in the nick of time – in the first half which had three Proms premieres amidst its five pieces. And how times change. In Proms days of yore, Monday nights used to be Wagner nights, but in this season Wagner was squeezed in at the last minute, even if Isabelle Faust had pre-empted his official inclusion with a Wagner encore in Prom 67. For this Last Night Nina Stemme, radiant in both garb and voice, ended the first half as Isolde in the “biggest cut in opera” – the Prelude and Liebestod.

As has become traditional over the last few seasons the opener is a commission. Here, with appropriate flair, Lotta Wennäkoski’s Flounce offered an appropriately quixotic take on the various meanings of that word; confident both in expression and judging the sense of occasion with a light touch and glint in the eye. In an ever-changeable scheme, the laurel wreath was placed over the bust of Sir Henry at this point – although surely the most appropriate time to do it is when the conductor asks the audience to cheer the co-founder of the Proms.

Soprano Nina Stemme performs Rule, Britannia! with the BBC Singers, BBC Symphony Chorus and the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sakari Oramo at the Last Night of the Proms 2017Photograph: Mark Allan / BBCMost substantial was the nod to the fiftieth-anniversary of Zoltán Kodály, who – remarkably – had been unheard this season so far. His Budavári Te Deum marked both the most substantial work of the evening and the most satisfying role for the BBC Symphony Chorus and the BBC Singers, as well as a finely matched quartet of vocal soloists, led radiantly by Lucy Crowe. While bemoaning the omission earlier in the season of, say, Háry János or Summer Evening, this proved much more than a makeweight, originally composed for the 250th-anniversary of Buda’s liberation from Turkish rule.

Kodály’s fellow fiftieth-death-anniversary musician, Sir Malcolm Sargent had his An Impression on a Windy Day played. A blustery tone-poem, though not without calmer sections, it may not have achieved hurricane proportions but certainly made enough of an impression to wonder why we hadn’t heard it more often.

The following music, under a solely orchestral guise, has been an irregular item at the Proms over the years, but – in honour of the centenary of Finnish Independence from Russia – here Finlandia was given in its 1940 version for chorus and orchestra. The combined BBC Chorus and Singers sang from memory Veikko Antero Koskenniermi’s ardent nationalist lyric. The big screens above the canopy focussed on Sakari Oramo mouthing (if not singing) the words as he conducted what turned out to be one of the most moving parts of the evening.

Tenor Ben Johnson and soprano Lucy Crowe perform Kodály’s Budavári Te Deum with the BBC Singers, BBC Symphony Chorus and the BBC Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Sakari Oramo at the Last Night of the Proms 2017Photograph: Mark Allan / BBCOramo closed the first half by brining on Nina Stemme for Wagner. While he conjured the BBCSO in a luminous rendition of the Prelude, she stood stock still and remained so during the aching ‘Liebestod’, allowing Isolde’s thoughts to be carried only by the words and facial expressions. It capped a seriousness to the first half that reflected well the majority of the season and paid due reverence to important anniversaries.

There was one more anniversary to celebrate, John Adams’s seventieth. In advance of his Girls of the Golden West (due in November in San Francisco) the second half opened with Lola Montez Does the Spider Dance, an off-cut dedicated to Marin Alsop. Based on a risqué dance by Irish-born Marie Dolores Eliza Rosanna Gilbert, who entertained various Gold Rush clientele (both in California and Australia), it is a catchy little number in various sections, spotlighting cheeky E-flat clarinet and sombre trombone passages, which whets the appetite for the opera. Whether programme annotator Graeme Kay’s allusions to Richard Strauss’s Till Eulenspiegel and ‘Dance of the Seven Veils’ hold any water, I don’t know, but its evocation of Gilbert’s dance in which she pretended to swipe spiders off her dress, ending in her raising her skirt to reveal what was underneath, is another enjoyable Adams short.

With a change of costume to an almost slinky, shiny number Stemme returned, this time judiciously amplified, for songs by Kurt Weill and the Gershwins. We got a rather sedate ‘The Lorelei’ (from 1933’s Pardon My English) first leading to a sultrily sensuous ‘Surabaya Johnny’ from Happy End in Weill’s original arrangement, saxophone and brass-heavy. Stemme’s steady demeanour concentrated both the songs’ passion and hatred into vocal delivery and facial expression to winning effect. To end was a fantastic rendition of Ira Gershwin’s lyrics and Kurt Weill’s music, in ‘The Saga of Jenny’ from Lady in the Dark, Stemme alive to the cleverness of the lyrics as Oramo was to the outrageousness of the arrangement.

Sakari Oramo conducts the BBC Symphony Orchestra, the BBC Singers and the BBC Symphony Chorus in the Last Night of the Proms 2017Photograph: Mark Allan / BBCAnd that – bar the traditional aspects – was it. Well, there was a bit more to it than that. Oramo split his speech into two, saying hello to the Proms in the Park audiences and explaining the regional songs interpolated into Wood’s Fantasia on British Sea Songs. Two were very welcome additions – the Scottish ‘Eriskay Love Lilt’ and Welsh ‘Ar lan y môr’, beautifully sung by Chorus and Singers – but I do wonder if there is a Northern Irish song other than ‘Danny Boy’ to represent over the water. Even ‘Jack’s the Lad’ was a little more under control this year (you could hear the music almost through to the end), even if some tired japes with a floating parrot, introduced a smattering of ill-judged laughter at the start of ‘Tom Bowling’, thankfully not putting cellist Susan Monks off her stride.

As Wood’s Fantasia ran seamlessly into Sargent’s arrangement of Arne’s ‘Rule Britannia!’, Stemme – Sutton Hoo helmet with Mercury-like wings on her head and spear in hand – had almost to run on to the stage, and there was a marked preponderance in the Arena of EU flags. The audience’s vocal contributions continued in both the Elgar and in Parry’s Jerusalem.

All-in-all this was an excellent Last Night. Sakari Oramo made a rather self-deprecating speech about the role of the conductor (not a bus conductor), noting this year the seven women who had conducted at the Proms, before remarking that we should really be applauding the musicians who do all the hard work.

Friday 13 July 2018 opens the 124th season of the Henry Wood Promenade Concerts. See you there.

Prom 74: Vienna Philharmonic – Michael Tilson Thomas conducts Brahms & Beethoven – Emanuel Ax plays Mozart K449

Brahms
Variations on a Theme by Haydn [St Anthony Chorale], Op.56a
Mozart
Piano Concerto No.14 in E-flat, K449
Beethoven
Symphony No.7 in A, Op.92

Emanuel Ax (piano)

Vienna Philharmonic
Michael Tilson Thomas


Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 8 September, 2017
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Michael Tilson Thomas conducts the Vienna Philharmonic at the BBC Proms 2017Photograph: Chris Christodoulou / BBCWhether the Vienna Philharmonic sounds as it once recognisably did, in days of yore, is a moot point, but in this second of two consecutive Proms for 2017, this time with Michael Tilson Thomas, the orchestra was in its comfort zone but not complacent, and there were a few welcome surprises along the way.

It was the Wiener Philharmoniker that gave the premiere of Brahms’s Haydn Variations, in 1873 with the composer conducting. Brahms believed his plundered tune was by Joseph Haydn; turns out not so, but he made full use of it. In 2017 the VPO lavished creamy-rich wind-playing on the score and the strings were lightly lyrical. MTT’s watchword was clarity – of articulation and detail – and although this sometimes made for staid tempos there was much more to be beguiled by, particularly in terms of gracefulness and a gentle touch, and the Finale, which can be made sullen, even funereal, was nicely buoyant.

Emanuel Ax performs Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 14 with the Vienna Philharmonic under conductor Michael Tilson Thomas at the BBC Proms 2017Photograph: Chris Christodoulou / BBCThere was though the problem of over-prominent horns, upsetting of balance, especially in the last movement of the Beethoven. But how good to find a conductor nowadays that doesn’t rush through Beethoven’s music or go for tones that are emaciated. That said, a couple more double basses (making eight) would have been welcome, but good to hear moderate tempos in which the music was still lively and dancing (the latter quality reminding of Wagner’s off-quoted moniker). Timpani (different player) were more assertive than in the Brahms, and having given an incisive account of the first movement – with time on its side, and with the dovetailing between Poco sostenuto and Vivace particularly well-managed – MTT then ensured an Allegretto that strode with solemnity, enlivened by dynamic contrasts, not least intense crescendos, and pinpoint contrapuntalism (antiphonal violins aiding and abetting). The Scherzo gambolled attractively (the Presto marking down-graded, although sorry to lose the second repeat) but the Trio was somnambulant – it needs to move along, as Toscanini demonstrated – and, conversely, the Finale (no attacca, which lost some concentration) needed just a little more impetus, but in an age where Beethoven Symphonies can be too fast and anaemic I’m not complaining.

The encore was another of those surprises. If I heard MTT correctly this was the first time the Vienna Phil has ever played Delius’s On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring (1912). It was rather special, of tender evocation, with forest-legend clarinet calls and a lovely viola solo. Unseasonal, maybe, but a reminder of times past … and anticipating times future.

Also special was Emanuel Ax in some endearing Mozart, a really wonderful performance of old-world charm and crisp affection, and employing the composer’s cadenzas, short and stylish. The first movement was unhurried and elegant, the second courtly and ornamented – richly expressive, a heartfelt aria without words – and the Finale perky yet exacting, smile-inducing, with something kept in reserve for a foot-tapping sprint to the finishing post. Pianism this civilised and refined, yet also so communicative and enlightening, is rare these days. MTT and the Vienna members were ideal partners – this was music-making by friends for friends, and Ax went on to spellbind with Schubert’s A-flat Impromptu (from the D935 set), not sentimental but overflowing with sentiment and with a babbling-brook middle section.

Prom 72: Vienna Philharmonic – Daniel Harding conducts Mahler 6

Mahler
Symphony No.6 in A-minor

Vienna Philharmonic
Daniel Harding


Reviewed by: David Gutman

Reviewed: 7 September, 2017
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Vienna Philharmonic perform Mahler’s Symphony No. 6 in A minor conducted by Daniel Harding at the BBC PromsPhotograph: Chris Christodoulou / BBCNot for the first time the Vienna Philharmonic is giving two consecutive Proms under guest conductors neither of whom enjoys quite the legendary reputation of the ensemble itself. That said, Daniel Harding, on the podium for this first date, is no stranger to the Viennese. It was he who introduced the orchestra to Deryck Cooke’s performing version of Mahler’s Tenth in 2004, subsequently recording it for Deutsche Grammophon. More recently he directed the Sixth in a high-profile eleventh-hour Berlin engagement at which he replaced a mysteriously unwilling Kirill Petrenko. The present account followed Sixths with the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra at the Baltic Sea Festival and with the Orchestre de Paris in the French capital where Harding has just begun his first season as its music director. The well-filled Albert Hall was largely attentive and appreciative yet, significantly, there was no awed silence at the close; the premature burst of applause which intruded so awkwardly merely confirmed that the music’s depths had not been plumbed.

Vienna Philharmonic perform Mahler’s Symphony No. 6 in A minor conducted by Daniel Harding at the BBC PromsPhotograph: Chris Christodoulou / BBCThe BBC’s programme booklet stumbled with some bogus picture research but was on surer ground in dwelling on the music’s dual nature as classical utterance and prophetic psychodrama. For a conductor just into his early forties, Harding’s Mahler is surprisingly temperate, even cerebral, not really ‘Tragic’ at all or at least not so in the manner of a Barbirolli, Tennstedt or Bernstein. Throughout one was struck by the pristine transparency of the orchestral, lighter than usual from this source, with glorious horn-playing and burnished unanimity (if less obvious enthusiasm or distinctive tone) from the frequently high-lying strings, violins antiphonally divided. Double basses and harps were positioned hard left, producing some memorably clean and sonorous timbral effects. There was plenty more to tickle the ear, not least in the voluble cacophony of off-stage bells (both cow and tubular). Still, Harding’s disavowal of the music’s neurotic impulses and careful rationing of rubato left this listener disappointed. There is nothing very radical these days about respecting the first-movement exposition repeat, placing the Andante moderato before the Scherzo or retaining only two out of three of the finale’s hammer-blows. Just in terms of the visuals (and perhaps health and safety) it seemed peculiar to conceal the side drum below the timpani hard right. Odder still to have Monty Python’s giant sledgehammer strike what was presumably a wooden box with the latter hidden from view and, in any event, dangerously close to the bassoons.

In retrospect, the blithe character of the music-making was pretty much apparent from the start, the physicality of the opening march less oppressive than it needed to be, the refusal to inject much subjective nuance into the impassioned “Alma” theme further limiting the movement’s potential emotional range. And was it always quite together? No matter. Such material should arguably be rougher round the edges.

Vienna Philharmonic perform Mahler’s Symphony No. 6 in A minor conducted by Daniel Harding at the BBC PromsPhotograph: Chris Christodoulou / BBCPerhaps some sense of routine is unavoidable these days when performances are so numerous. Difficult now to imagine an era in which Neville Cardus was Mahler’s only real champion among the London daily critics. The Proms did not feature the work at all until 1963. (Curiously to us today this local debut constituted only the first half of an arduous evening for the BBC Symphony Orchestra.) The Vienna Philharmonic gave the First under Claudio Abbado in 1992, the Second under Simon Rattle in 1999, and, especially memorable though with less regard for the niceties of tight ensemble, the Fifth under Leonard Bernstein in 1987. Harding’s Sixth was not in that league, more a five-star showcase for an orchestral institution that retains its presence at or near the very top of the heap but is content to coast on auto-pilot.

Prom 73: András Schiff plays Book One of J. S. Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier

Bach
Das wohltemperierte Klavier – Book I, BWV846-869

Sir András Schiff (piano)


Reviewed by: Peter Reed

Reviewed: 7 September, 2017
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Sir András Schiff performs J. S. Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier – Book 1 at the BBC PromsPhotograph: Mark Allan / BBCAny aspiring keyboard player knows of marvels that can unfold just by taking on any one of J. S. Bach’s ‘48’ Preludes and Fugues, and here was András Schiff embarking on the first twenty-four, with Book II scheduled for next year’s Proms, nearly two hours of numinous counterpoint, poetry and fantasy that both focused and expanded the time-scale. Initially it seemed extraordinary that Schiff was playing all of Book I from memory, but this is music he has lived with most of his life, and his ease of engagement with each Prelude and each Fugue, with endless permutations of style and character to explore, communicated itself instantly.

Bach exposes pianists in strange ways – in recent years both Pollini and Barenboim in Book I were far from treasured experiences, mainly because too much of them got in the way – but here were no ego edges with Schiff. Of course, his personality was behind every detail – it couldn’t be otherwise – but his direct contact with the music was never in doubt. There was no information about the instrument he was playing – for his Goldberg Variations at the 2015 Proms he used a conditioned Steinway – and the upper register sounded attractively un-showy. Schiff is no stranger to ‘period’ instruments, and his sparing use of the sustaining pedal was his most obvious deferral to ‘authentic’ manners – there were, indeed, long stretches when he didn’t use it at all.

Sir András Schiff takes a bow after performing J. S. Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier – Book 1 at the BBC PromsPhotograph: Mark Allan / BBCSchiff is at his best in projecting Bach’s contrasts of rhetorical gesture and contrapuntal design – which he combined brilliantly in the D-major Fugue; he knows how the music oscillates between profound spirituality – VII & VIII were a quietly epic case in point; he admitted a north German rigour – the C-minor Prelude was notably steady with a very controlled closing flourish; and never far away was a dancelike volatility – the B-flat Prelude (XXI) was a delight, with Schiff seeming merely to brush the keys. He also knows how the ear craves order and how Bach both delivers it and somehow flatters our appreciation of abstract sound in a way charged with feeling. The gentle, rather tragic dialogue Schiff unfolded in the C-sharp minor Prelude (complemented by a ruminative Fugue that barely goes above the stave) was taken infinitely further in the extraordinary introspection of the G-sharp minor Prelude, a mood he wisely broke in the Fugue.

As you might expect from this masterly Bach interpreter, there wasn’t one instance in which he announced the initial Fugue subject with hectoring emphasis – the nearest he got to that was in the litany-like repetitions of the subject, to great effect in the D-minor (VI). Throughout the evening, his playing rippled with detail, minute fluctuations in rhythm and articulation and the closest attention to dynamics and tone, in a way that only suggested that this was one way of playing the music, yet which reeled you in with all the seduction of a defining performance. It was a stupendous achievement, and Schiff, a notorious scourge of audience bad manners, had no cause for concern playing to people who were completely absorbed in what he was drawing from the music.

Prom 71: London Philharmonic Orchestra/Vladimir Jurowski – Funeral Song … Volga Boatmen … Russian Funeral … The Year 1905 – Alina Ibragimova plays Prokofiev

Stravinsky
Funeral Song, Op.5
arr. Stravinsky
Song of the Volga Boatmen
Prokofiev
Violin Concerto No.1 in D, Op.19
Britten
Russian Funeral
Shostakovich
Symphony No.11 in G-minor, Op.103 (The Year 1905)

Alina Ibragimova (violin)

London Philharmonic Orchestra
Vladimir Jurowski


Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 6 September, 2017
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Vladimir Jurowski conducts the London Philharmonic Orchestra at the BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall on Wednesday 6 September 2017Photograph: Chris Christodoulou / BBCThis London Philharmonic Prom opened with the lost-and-found Funeral Song (see link below), written in 1908 by Stravinsky to honour the deceased Rimsky-Korsakov. It had a performance in January 1909, St Petersburg, and then a second one there more than a century later… since then it’s travelled (Salonen did the UK premiere). Funeral Song is an ambitious piece – dark, brooding and with long melodies – Wagner is in the background if with Liadov and Rachmaninov in more-defined profiles. Apart from anticipations of the waiting-in-the-wings Firebird ballet, there is not too much to suggest Funeral Song is by Stravinsky, but it’s an intriguing addition to his catalogue. It would have been instructive to have gone straight into ‘Song of the Volga Boatmen’, arranged by Stravinsky without strings, a solemn woodwind/brass ceremonial that in these colours recalls Mussorgsky.

To the fairy-tale and wintery scenes of Prokofiev’s First Violin Concerto (completed in 1917, a significant date in Russian history), Alina Ibragimova and Vladimir Jurowski collaborated for a rendition that obliged the attention and found the LPO as sensitive and charismatic partners. Opening confidentially, Ibragimova was alive to the caprices of the first movement, the mood-changes made intrinsic, and it closed with the ‘magic flute’ of Juliette Bausor. In the sardonic and spiky Scherzo, Ibragimova didn’t rush and was therefore able to bite into the music, the LPO tactile to her machinations although the tuba was curiously subdued, audible if not outspoken enough; nevertheless the music swarmed and buzzed. In the Finale, as generally moderate as the first movement (maybe serving as a structural guide to William Walton in his three string concertos), Ibragimova seduced with lyricism, rose to an impassioned climax and then the music reminisced as if thawed. Her tone, technique and musicianship, aided by the LPO in fraternal form, married sound to images and brought out Prokofiev’s carefully crafted expression and insignias as if the ink was still wet. Ibragimova’s encore was the fantastical first movement of Ysaÿe’s Sonata No.5 (see link below to a review of her recording).

This was a generous programme. It’s not every day that Shostakovich’s mighty Eleventh Symphony shares a concert’s half with anything. But Benjamin Britten’s Russian Funeral (1936) was an apt choice. Scored for brass and percussion, this, like Funeral Song, fell off the radar as soon it had been performed, and wasn’t heard again, or published, until more than forty years later, after Britten’s death. The young Britten’s socialist and pacifist leanings are evident in this short if striking score, invasion and war in the air: mournful percussive steps and wailing and viperish brass do not necessarily suggest Britten, but the cleverness of the piece does; and these LPO members played it with much resource.

Violinist Alina Ibragimova performs in Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 1 in D major with the London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Vladimir Jurowski at the 2017 BBC PromsPhotograph: Chris Christodoulou / BBCThe Russian Revolution and its musical aftermath is a theme of this year’s Proms. Good that Shostakovich’s Twelfth Symphony has already been included (conducted insightfully and brilliantly by Vasily Petrenko) and now its predecessor is aired, concerned with the first (failed) Revolution. Symphony 11 (completed in 1957) was composed contemporaneously to the Hungarian Uprising and in which Shostakovich uses revolutionary songs (one also utilised by Britten). Performance timings are wide in this work, from around fifty-three minutes (Kondrashin, my intro) to over seventy (Rostropovich). Both are wonderfully persuasive (there are recordings), so too Jurowski with his fifty-nine (recently given in Bucharest), as other conductors have been (concerts from Bychkov, Metzmacher, Pletnev, Slatkin, et al, with their hour and various minutes).

The opening ‘Palace Square’ issued a chilled air, eerie, with ghostly fanfares and coded timpani, the Adagio tempo sustained, made compelling – these are strong musical ideas to create a potent atmosphere – before the swirl of ‘The Ninth of January’ enters, music of surreptitious networking, setting the scene for conflagration, as the rebellion is put-down; there is a filmic aspect to this Shostakovich Symphony and Jurowski might well have ‘let go’ more, not least with the vicious repression of the uprising. In ‘Eternal Memory’ the activists lick their wounds and remember those lost. The LPO’s viola-players eloquently essayed this lament for the fallen before a fervent outpouring, Shostakovich at his most Tchaikovskian. With ‘The Alarm Bell’ Finale bursting in (the Symphony’s span is unbroken) Jurowski again opted for deliberation rather than wide-screen graphics, although he built the hammered-out climax remorselessly, before Sue Böhling’s deeply expressive cor anglais solo over barely-sounded strings. The mutineers re-group for further fighting – 1917 is to be the year, with indebtedness to the 1905 insurgence. The grimly determined coda is brightened by bells, here the clangour of the church variety. Some conductors opt for a sustained tintinnabulation, whereas Jurowski went for an abrupt cut-off, his statuesque figure claiming a few seconds of silence. On reflection, not the most overwhelming account of this underestimated score, but one that saw the piece whole and which was impressively played throughout.

Proms at … The Tanks at Tate Modern

“Join BBC Radio 3 presenter Sara Mohr-Pietsch and the London Contemporary Orchestra for a specially curated Prom in the industrial surroundings of The Tanks at Tate Modern. In a link-up with BBC Radio 3’s new music series Open Ear, cutting-edge experimental music sits side by side with brand-new sounds and free improvisation. The programme includes a collaboration between the LCO and London-based electronic artist Actress; new work by Catherine Lamb; Cassandra Miller’s evocative, folk-inspired Guide performed by vocal ensemble Exaudi; and Rodrigo Constanzo’s dynamic performances with light and sound.” [BBC Proms website]

Actress (electronics), Rodrigo Constanzo (drums / electronics / lights), Exaudi, The London Contemporary Orchestra/Robert Ames & Hugh Brunt


Reviewed by: Barry Creasy

Reviewed: 6 September, 2017
Venue: Tate Modern, Bankside, London SE1

London Contemporary Orchestra Director Hugh Brunt conducts the LCO at Proms at… The Tanks at Tate Modern, in a Late Night Prom as part of the BBC Proms 2017Photograph: Mark Allan / BBCWhen Sara Mohr-Pietsch tells you that you may walk around so as to “curate your own listening experience”, it’s a sure sign that you’re in the rarefied air of arty intellectualism. The works presented at the Open Ear Prom were music at its most abstract and experimental and probably best described as patterns of sound.

The challenge with this sort of material is that, like Abstract Expressionist visual art, its effect is entirely at the level of the personal – which particular colours or patterns appeal to an individual. To some, for example, Rodrigo Constanzo’s untitled light-show-accompanied random riffs for snare drum and contact microphone might have been a stimulating exercise in feedback wails and percussion techniques; to others, it sounded like nothing so much as a muted heavy-metal band being repeatedly pushed down the stairs.

Rodrigo Constanzo presents a solo set at Proms at… The Tanks at Tate Modern, in a Late Night Prom as part of the BBC Proms 2017Photograph: Mark Allan / BBCEmilie Levienaise-Farrouch’s The Minutes (the second word pronounced to mean ‘tiny things’), played with concentrated accuracy by The London Contemporary Orchestra under Hugh Brunt, consisted of the these-days-inevitable cluster chords built up from long-held notes played by the strings, bows initially barely touching to maximise the harmonic overtones. As the touch became firmer short ostinato passages developed, giving a feeling of direction and development, which then faded back to nothing.

The most engaging part of the programme contained works by established artists in the field: Catherine Lamb, Cassandra Miller and the club-night electronic virtuoso Actress. Lamb’s BBC commission Prisma interius V, written specially for the round concrete space of The Tanks worked well. The sounds were produced by three groups directed by Robert Ames: the strings of LCO, a trio of glass harmonica, bass clarinet and harp, and a synthesizer, programmed to broadcast sounds of pre-selected frequencies picked up by microphones on the Tate roof. What emerged was a restful echoing dreamscape of timbres: the twinkling of the harp and harmonica underscored by calm strings; the occasional directionless presence of noise from the synthesizer; and the odd mournful clarinet note (although the requirement for a bass instrument was unclear, as most of these notes didn’t even enter the chalumeau register of a B-flat instrument).

Members of the London Contemporary Orchestra perform in a Late Night Prom at The Tanks at Tate Modern, as part of the BBC Proms 2017Photograph: Mark Allan / BBCCassandra Miller’s Guide was another in the series begun by her Bel Canto – a choral exploration of the voice of Maria Callas. In Guide, the eight singers of Exaudi reproduced the vocal techniques and tropes of the Southern Baptist hymn ‘Guide me, O thou Great Jehovah’ as sung by Maria Maldauer. Haydn in his ‘Little Organ Mass’, uses polytextur – setting different sections of the text to be sung at the same time by different voices – and Miler expands on this, treating the musical material in the same way, such that ten Maria Maldauers were all swooping and emoting in overlapping musical lines, creating an overall vocal jangle, within which different strands rose and fell. It is a fascinating work, but one which, after the initial idea was realised, called for a shorter exposition.

Momentum – a collaboration between LCO and Actress – was the most enjoyable piece. Combining electronic manipulation, sampling and other DJ effects with real-time acoustic sounds – from glass bottles, a prepared piano, a mouthpiece-less clarinet and a plastic bag, among others – it packed into its eight minutes a welter of different timbres and rhythms, from distant otherworldly note-clusters to rhythmic hip-hop-derived material, providing a worthwhile-after-all close to a very late evening.

Prom 70: BBC Symphony Orchestra/Karina Canellakis – Missy Mazzoli & Dvořák – Jeremy Denk plays Bartók

Missy Mazzoli
Sinfonia (for Orbiting Spheres) [European premiere of orchestral version]
Bartók
Piano Concerto No.2
Dvořák
Symphony No.8 in G, Op.88

Jeremy Denk (piano)

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Karina Canellakis


Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 5 September, 2017
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Pianist Jeremy Denk performs Bartók’s Piano Concerto No. 2 with the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Karina Canellakis at the BBC Proms at the Royal Albert HallPhotograph: Chris Christodoulou / BBCNestled between a sequence of five concerts from overseas orchestras and a run up to the Last Night of the Proms, two evenings from the Vienna Philharmonic and András Schiff’s late-night Bach, it was perhaps to be expected that the house orchestra’s eleventh and penultimate appearance, with a debut conductor to boot, might be the night that even the most ardent Prommers might take off. But nobody told the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Karina Canellakis that, because together they were out to match the excellence of the Pittsburghers the night before and lay down a marker for the Vienna Phil. Someone from BBCTV knew there were good things brewing (or had been tipped the wink) as it was recorded for broadcast on BBC4 this Friday night. Don’t miss it.

This conjunction of repertoire serendipitously fell into the category by which Jeremy Denk introduced his encore: “Now for something completely different.” We travelled back in time from a twenty-first-century opener, a twentieth-century Piano Concerto and a nineteenth-century Symphony. Together they built into a supremely satisfying whole.

Composer Missy Mazzoli takes a bow following the performance of her piece Sinfonia (for Orbiting Spheres) with the BBC Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Karina CanellakisPhotograph: Chris Christodoulou / BBCIt turned out that Canellakis has played at the Proms before, as a violinist in the Chicago Symphony with Haitink in 2010. However, Missy Mazzoli was a true Proms debutante with her Sinfonia (for Orbiting Spheres). She is claimed as an arch-minimalist and the work was much more subtle than I might have expected. It magically and mystically portrays the circular orbits of planets in a solar system, and has an ethereal soundworld that evokes the infinity of space, through which the planets circulate in their own planes and speeds. Almost completely comprised of slow tempos and looped motifs, Mazzoli’s other-worldly sounds are heightened by harmonicas played by various members of the orchestra, with a percussionist also doubling as a melodica player. Inspiration also comes from the Medieval hurdy-gurdy, an early name for which was “sinfonia” – hence the title of the piece. Atmospheric in its glittering sensuousness – very much space music (film-music composers will need to take note) – there is a sheen of radiant harmonies, occasionally interrupted towards the end with the gruff yowl of a Lion’s Roar, encouraging the trombone section, before evaporating away.

Karina Canellakis conducts the BBC Symphony Orchestra at the 2017 BBC Proms at the Royal Albert HallPhotograph: Chris Christodoulou / BBCSo to the acerbic style of Bartók’s Second Piano Concerto. The composer played it at the Proms in the 1935-36 Winter Season under Sir Henry Wood. With Jeremy Denk crystal-clear at the keyboard, if sometimes obliterating the quieter passages in the first movement (scored for woodwind, brass and percussion), the Concerto was nicely conceived, from the Baroque, rhythmic opener, via the night-music of the tripartite central edifice, to the folk-driven Finale. Denk made light of the technical difficulties, and clearly loves the work, collaborating in a performance that was both enlightening and absorbing. His Monty Python introduction to his encore led to a sublime Andante from Mozart’s C-major Sonata, K545, a contemplative gem.

Following the interval, Dvořák’s Symphony No.8 was given a performance of outdoor charm; direct and sometimes brazen, but always lovingly. It was amazing to hear the connections with Mahler’s First heard the previous evening; reminding one more forcibly than ever how much Mahler was a Bohemian composer. Even the brass-fanfare motifs in the slow movement seemed to have the basis of the military bugle calls that Mahler was wont to include. There was sterling solo playing and Canellakis directed an organically unfolding rendition, and a great rapport with the BBCSO.

Proms at … Cadogan Hall, PCM8 – Elias String Quartet & Alice Neary play Schubert’s String Quintet

Schubert
String Quintet in C, D956

Elias String Quartet [Sara Bitlloch & Donald Grant (violins), Robin Ireland (guest viola) & Marie Bitlloch (cello)] with Alice Neary (cello)


Reviewed by: Antony Hodgson

Reviewed: 4 September, 2017
Venue: Cadogan Hall, London

Elias String QuartetPhotograph: eliasstringquartet.comSo sensitive was this interpretation that it would be unfair to suggest that it was understated but the gentle, often poignant refinement of Schubert’s beautiful melodies was sometimes made at the expense of emphasis and contrast. One wonders which member of the ensemble was responsible for these moments of subjectivism. Is it the leader or did the players confer?

Schubert marks the first movement Allegro ma non troppo and there is no other tempo indication. In this performance the opening was strong, unhurried and dramatic but at the first fortissimo the music moved forward making the preceding bars seem like a slow introduction. This means that modification of tempo has to be managed in time for the exposition repeat; similarly the later reappearance of the opening bars also had to be subject to adjustment. These modifications were made skilfully, the shaping of the music was certainly responsive and each succeeding melody was presented in an eloquent manner.

Attention was given to the realisation of Schubert’s frequent use of pizzicato accompaniment. The viola-player (Robin Ireland replacing regular Elias member Martin Saving) is given this responsibility in the elegant cello-led second subject but these adornments were very subdued. When cello (usually the second one) is asked to do likewise a very dry tone was used – not at all suitable for the delicate violin phrases that it accompanies in the Adagio. It does nevertheless suggest carefully thought-through preparation: this movement was very slow and extremely intense; the quiet playing, sometimes verging on the limits of audibility, was magical. The more positive central section was given with the minimum of emphasis yet it blended with the withdrawn, unhurried reading.

I was puzzled by the way the musicians shaped the Scherzo. Schubert wrote a twenty-six-bar coda and I do not understand why this was also placed before the Trio. Because the Trio therefore followed a very final-sounding statement, the reduced tempo required by Schubert made it seem like a separate slow movement – and slow it certainly was here.

I have no reservations about the delightfully rhythmic reading of the Finale; the fractionally delayed upbeat of the leader’s first entry indicated that the Hungarian nature of the movement was to be stressed, as indeed it was. Cheerful further melodies suggested the style of a Viennese dance by Schubert’s close contemporary Joseph Lanner.

Prom 69: Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra/Manfred Honeck – John Adams’s Lollapalooza & Mahler 1 – Anne-Sophie Mutter plays Dvořák

John Adams
Lollapalooza
Dvořák
Violin Concerto in A-minor, Op.53
Mahler
Symphony No.1 in D

Anne-Sophie Mutter (violin)

Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra
Manfred Honeck


Reviewed by: David Gutman

Reviewed: 4 September, 2017
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Anne-Sophie Mutter performs Dvořák’s Violin Concerto in A minor with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra conducted by Manfred Honeck at the 2017 Proms at the Royal Albert HallPhotograph: Chris Christodoulou / BBCThe Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, currently embarked on another of its whirlwind tours of Europe’s top music festivals, returned to the Proms for its twelfth visit with a very special guest in tow. As in 2011, the crowd-puller was Anne-Sophie Mutter, this time determined to make the Dvořák Concerto indisputably her own. I was not present in 1986 when she first gave the work at the Proms. These days she divides the critics. Sceptics tend to deride her latter-day readings as over-egged, dwelling on her strapless gowns or her fees rather than her musicianship – there is of course more to it than that.

This was not an account of the Dvořák content to let the composer carry the day unaided. The high-lying violin-writing (which Mutter believes has hindered the Concerto’s acceptance quite as much as its structural novelty) was dispatched with incomparable courage and fire. That said, her abrupt switches from gloopy romanticism to a super-refined vibrato-less whisper could scarcely be described as unselfconscious. There were numerous stabs at a distinctively Bohemian mode of expression in the Finale (and Manfred Honeck, a frequent collaborator, was with her all the way), rather less in the way of natural songfulness and intimacy. Mutter could never be fairly accused of resting on her laurels or merely coasting: that pressurised vibrato-rich tone is challenged first and foremost by the artist herself. The predictable Bach encore was the ‘Gigue’ from the D-minor Partita, BWV1004.

The Honeck/Pittsburgh partnership, though often described as the most central European of American teams, is capable of producing sounds both loud and brash. That was certainly the case in the opening work by John Adams, a lolloping dollop of post-modern jollification written for Simon Rattle and championed by MTT. Enjoyable as it was, it sat rather oddly with the rest.

Manfred Honeck conducts the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra at the 2017 BBC Proms at the Royal Albert HallPhotograph: Chris Christodoulou / BBCThe Mahler confirmed that the American physicality of Pittsburgh’s brass section, still rowdy at times, is now better integrated than on previous visits. Indeed this was a mightily impressive display by the whole ensemble, beginning with the utmost delicacy and ending in no-holds-barred splendour. When the First Symphony was given its British premiere by Henry Wood during the Proms season of 1903, it is unlikely to have sounded anything like this. Its idiom is that much more familiar to today’s players and Honeck, a sometime Abbado assistant who spent years as a violist in the Vienna Philharmonic under such as Leonard Bernstein and Lorin Maazel, brings a wealth of insider knowledge to what has become one of his signature pieces.

While both the first and second movements demonstrated Honeck’s fondness for whipping up a storm as the curtain falls, the Scherzo was at times notably sturdy, a self-conscious study in rustic regionalism. Mercifully the third movement was launched with a double bass solo: Honeck had no truck with the recent vogue for allocating this minor-key ‘Frère Jacques’ variant to the whole section. Was the playing too plush even so? Here at least the strangulated effect produced in 1903 may have been closer to Mahler’s original conception.

Honeck revealed more of his inner Carlos Kleiber – a matter of height and demeanour as well as technique – in two encores. Josef Strauss’s Die Libelle (The Dragonfly), a mostly tender polka-mazurka, provided welcome relief after the storm-tossed intensity of Mahler’s Finale, while the brasher Furioso-Polka came from the pen of Johann Strauss II – neither seemed obvious choices to we non-Viennese. Like Kleiber, Honeck likes the second violins on the right. Rubato was ubiquitous, dynamic range maximally extended.

Not everything was plain sailing. There was disruptive coughing throughout – couldn’t we have an announcement and/or a note in the programme booklets to discourage the rampant excesses of bronchitic patrons? – not to mention some desultory applause before Mahler’s Scherzo.

Notwithstanding the above, the protracted closing ovation seemed like an expression of genuine enthusiasm for the band’s exalted technical standards and extrovert, old-school expressive candour. I doubt we will hear many better prepared accounts of mainstream fare during the coming season.

Prom 67: Mendelssohn – The Hebrides, Violin Concerto, Reformation Symphony – Freiburg Baroque Orchestra/Pablo Heras-Casado with Isabelle Faust

Mendelssohn
Overture, The Hebrides (Fingal’s Cave), Op.26
Violin Concerto in E-minor, Op.64
Symphony No.5 in D, Op.107 (Reformation)

Isabelle Faust (violin)

Freiburg Baroque Orchestra
Pablo Heras-Casado


Reviewed by: Antony Hodgson

Reviewed: 3 September, 2017
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Isabelle FaustPhotograph: Detlev SchneiderTo open this lunchtime Prom, here was Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture interpreted in a way I had not heard before and it reflected a very personal view of the music which I have no hesitation in describing as romantic. There was enormous freedom of tempo and Pablo Heras-Casado’s subjective approach had conviction. The hushed opening really did conjure a vision of a peaceful seascape and each theme was shaped and caressed in such a way as to make the composer’s inspiration come alive. There is a section late in the work where a clarinet takes over a beautiful theme. Often conductors will suddenly pull back the tempo here for effect but Heras-Casado was so subtle that the immensely slow annunciation of the melody was absolutely natural. This expansive approach, daringly expressive, held the attention.

Refinement was the essence of Isabelle Faust’s reading of the Violin Concerto and Heras-Casado was entirely at-one with her. I have heard her in music of the Classical period where she was firmly positive; however, in Mendelssohn softness and beauty were an essential element throughout. Her tone was elegantly silky and virtuoso display was not part of her vision. At the very outset she did not so much enter as emerge. Tempos were supple; a new melody would find the conductor gently preparing for its arrival. The cadenza found Faust expounding the melodic line with similar reserve and I admired the way that she approached the demanding moments where the orchestra takes up the themes and the soloist accompanies with brilliant rising and falling runs; here she withdrew her tone: a suitable employment of modesty. The slow movement found every phrase carefully shaped and the result was to make the swiftness of the Finale all the more convincing: fast but gentle.

An encore provided a contrast: Wagner’s rather solemn violin-and-orchestra arrangement of ‘Träume’ from his Wesendonck-Lieder, giving Faust the opportunity to distil her timbre even further for the dreamy quality required.

Pablo Heras-CasadoPhotograph: pabloherascasado.comThe ‘Reformation’ Symphony begins with the ‘Dresden Amen’ (later used by Wagner in Parsifal), which stemmed from the Catholic Church, and the work ends with the firmly Lutheran ‘Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott’. It is interesting to look at Mendelssohn’s religious influences; his parents converted to Christianity from Judaism and brought him up in that faith. He also wrote many Anglican Hymns but I don’t think there is programmatic intention in this Symphony to promote Protestantism and the use of church-related music was employed only because the work was written to celebrate the tercentenary of an important event in Lutheran history.

Heras-Casado was almost Classical in his approach – bold in the extensive Allegro con fuoco that follows the deeply tragic introduction, and there was unrelenting drive until, towards the end, the ‘Dresden’ theme is subtly re-stated by trombones. The Allegro vivace was made to sound much like a Scherzo – the composer’s intention I feel – and although the brief Andante gave the conductor the opportunity once again to be unashamedly romantic, there remained a sense of continuity. The Finale rests firmly upon the Lutheran chorale; Heras-Casado permitted no hint of grandiosity and simply drove the noble music firmly forward in an exhilarating manner, power achieved and the important bass line – supplemented by contrabassoon and serpent – made full impact. With this programme these artists were promoting their new recording.

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